The eyes have it!

Dear Lucy: I’m a Ph.D. student, and I spend at least eight hours a day in front of my computer. How can I protect my eyes? I have perfect vision, and I’d like to keep it that way. —Twenty-Twenty

Dear 20-20: This is a great question—applicable not only to all the grad students out there, but to the rest of us as well, including Lucy. Could our screen use be hazardous to our eyesight? Is there anything we can do to protect our vision?
Lucy put these questions to MIT Medical Optometrist Patti Landry, who confirms that excess use of computers, tablets, and smart phones can, indeed, take a toll on our vision and wellbeing. “‘Computer vision syndrome’ is the name we give to a group of symptoms that may include blurred vision, headache, dry eyes, red eyes, eye pain or strain, and neck and back pain.” 
Blurred vision happens when your eyes’ internal focusing system becomes fatigued or starts to spasm from overuse, Landry explains. Eyestrain and headaches may occur as a result of “over-convergence”—overuse of the system that allows your eyes to work together as a team. Dry, irritated eyes result from a decrease in blink rate, which typically happens when we’re looking intently at a screen. And effects on our wellbeing? “Recent studies suggest that the blue light emanating from computer screens and mobile devices may actually be disrupting our circadian rhythms and contributing to sleep disorders,” Landry tells Lucy.
But, Landry notes, there are steps we can take to protect our eyes and our sleep patterns. “To avoid computer vision syndrome,” she says, “try to follow the 20-20-20 rule: Take a 20-second break every 20 minutes, and look away at something that is 20 feet away.” While Landry acknowledges that it can be difficult to adhere precisely to this schedule, she says “the real message is to take regular short breaks from the screen.” It might also be worth investing in an antiglare screen if the lighting in your work area causes reflections.
In addition to an ergonomically configured workspace, Landry also suggests periodic standing and stretching to relieve neck and back strain. And for the sake of your circadian rhythm, she says, “try to reduce recreational screen time at home, especially right before you are ready to sleep.”
Even though your vision seems “perfect,” Landry also suggests scheduling an eye exam to make sure you are not dealing with any underlying problems, such as dry eye or uncorrected refractive problems. Technology has placed many new demands on our vision, but Lucy hopes that you will try the tips described above and continue to enjoy excellent vision for many years to come. —Lucy

Back to Ask Lucy Information contained in Ask Lucy is intended solely for general educational purposes and is not intended as professional medical advice related to individual situations. Always obtain the advice of a qualified healthcare professional if you need medical diagnosis, advice, or treatment. Never disregard medical advice you have received, nor delay getting such advice, because of something you read in this column.